Amer­i­can Masters Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE MONTHLY — NOTED - NOTED by Miriam Cosic

‘Amer­i­can Masters’ at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia (un­til Novem­ber 11) looks like any other block­buster ex­hi­bi­tion im­ported from over­seas to widen our An­tipodean hori­zons. It isn’t. It comes from the gallery’s own hold­ings, the largest col­lec­tion of its kind out­side the US. And it’s free.

Jack­son Pol­lock’s fa­mous Blue Poles; Willem de Koon­ing’s Wo­man V, also a con­tro­ver­sial pur­chase; Mark Rothko’s moody black and bur­gundy #20; Andy Warhol’s ser­ried rows of Mar­i­lyns, Maos and Camp­bell’s Soup tins; Nan Goldin’s dev­as­tat­ing so­ci­o­log­i­cal pho­to­graphs: these and so much more are among the 150 pic­tures and sculp­tures on dis­play.

Metic­u­lous pa­ram­e­ters for the gallery’s col­lec­tion were laid down by the gallery’s found­ing di­rec­tor, James Mol­li­son, whose plan was es­tab­lished in more po­lit­i­cally broad-minded days. Mol­li­son was ap­pointed in 1968, 10 years be­fore the pro­jected open­ing, when the ur­bane John Gor­ton was prime min­is­ter. Gough Whit­lam was leader when the tabloid me­dia went nuts over the cost of Blue Poles and Wo­man V, ac­quired in 1973 and 1974.

The ac­qui­si­tions com­mit­tee was made up of artists, not the cor­po­rate types we’d see to­day, and had a brief to as­sem­ble works of the high­est qual­ity, re­flect­ing the lat­est trends in art. Mol­li­son wanted a col­lec­tion that would even­tu­ally ri­val those of the great Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can gal­leries in artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual, if not his­tor­i­cal, depth.

This ex­hi­bi­tion does jus­tice to his vi­sion. Even more in­ter­est­ing than the celebrity paint­ings are those that pro­vide con­text for them. An early Rothko (circa 1944– 46) is a ca­coph­ony of rup­tured shapes in shades of yel­low, aqua, dark peach, blue and pale grey, reach­ing for geo­met­ric or­der: a long way from the fa­mously calm­ing spir­i­tual sym­me­tries of his later work.

Pol­lock’s Totem Les­son 2 (1945) pre­dates the de­vel­op­ment of his drip tech­nique. Its cen­tral fig­ure and sur­round­ing mo­tifs look al­most rep­re­sen­ta­tional at first glance, but were ar­rived at via a process of “edit­ing” the orig­i­nal fig­ure with over­lays of grey house paint then over­lay­ing that with fur­ther work in oils.

Warhol’s Pop Art por­traits are al­most hack­neyed now, but here we have more sober­ing work. The colour­washed screen-print Elec­tric Chair (1967), part of his Death and Dis­as­ter se­ries, has al­ways dis­turbed me more than doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs of death-penalty para­pher­na­lia. The af­fect of (good) art.

Women’s art is al­ways un­der­es­ti­mated, and es­pe­cially so in the ma­cho Cold War war­rior mythol­ogy of Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism. Nonethe­less, im­por­tant artists like Lee Kras­ner, He­len Franken­thaler and Joan Mitchell were push­ing their own bril­liant bound­aries. Who, you say? Kras­ner, gen­er­ally seen as hand­maiden to the hard-drink­ing, un­faith­ful Pol­lock, has not one but two paint­ings on dis­play here.

And so on. Ar­shile Gorky, Robert Rauschen­berg, Hans Hof­mann, Bar­nett New­man, Philip Gus­ton, Roy Licht­en­stein, Ad Rein­hardt, Cindy Sher­man, Yoko Ono, Louise Bour­geois. Many were for­eign­ers who came to work in Amer­ica.

Robert Mother­well’s paint­ing El­egy to the Span­ish Repub­lic (1958) is mes­meris­ing. It is hard not to reach out and touch Eva Hesse’s in­stal­la­tion Con­tin­gent (1969): hang­ing rec­tan­gles made of cheese­cloth, la­tex and fi­bre that look like tex­tured tof­fee. Robert Ar­ne­son’s Frag­ment of West­ern Civil­i­sa­tion (1972), made of ter­ra­cotta, mor­tar, wood and mesh, would send shiv­ers down the spine of any ar­dent Ram­say Cen­tre sup­porter.

These are works of an un­usu­ally uni­form high qual­ity, and they be­long to us.

Mon­u­ment to V. Tatlin, 1966–69, flu­o­res­cent tubes. Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra. Pur­chased 1978. © Dan Flavin ARS / Li­censed by Copy­right Agency, 2018 M

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